The Garden City club will make their bow in this year’s edition of the ISL and are being seen as potential contendors for the title.
Last Season’s Performance
At the continental level Albert Roca‘s men really proved their mettle. After a historic appearance in the final of the 2016 AFC Cup, the Blues were only one hurdle away from repeating that feat. However, an extremely disciplined and resourceful Istiklol FC ensured that Roca’s men would not compete in the showpiece this year.
What would have been heartening for the Spaniard and the Bengaluru FC fans though was how seamlessly new signings such as Dimas Delgado, Erik Paartalu, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Antonio Dovale fit into the squad. With Miku, Eduardo Garcia and Antonio Nobrega being a part of the ISL squad, the signs are positive for the Blues.
Albert Roca’s men kicked off their pre-season for the ISL by playing 3 friendlies in Spain. Unfortunately, the Blues were unable to register a win in all of these games. What would have worried Roca is that Bengaluru only scored twice while they conceded 10.
Their pre-season continued back home in India which were interspersed with the club’s participation in the AFC Cup where they put up highly impressive performances against North Korea’s 4.25 SC and were defeated narrowly in the away leg to Istiklol FC.
The pre-season matches at home saw Roca’s men play double headers against I-League opposition in the form of East Bengal, Gokulam FC and Chennai City FC. They remained unbeaten in all 6 games and would have been particularly happy with the 3-1 win over East Bengal and a thumping 6-1 win against Chennai City FC.
Albert Roca aims to win his first league title with the Blues
Succeeding someone as influential as Ashley Westwood was always going to be a difficult task. However, Roca has handled that transition with aplomb during his stint with the club. Gradually moving away from Westwood’s high energy counter-attacking style, Roca has stamped his style over the team with his emphasis on patient, possession football. This is no doubt a result of his time with Spanish giants FC Barcelona.
The ISL would be another chance for Roca to add a domestic league title to his kitty. His tactical acumen would be tested to the hilt as he would be up against teams that are equally well equipped from a tactical and infrastructural point of view. How his team fares would be a fair reflection of his influence on the club’s performance since Westwood’s departure.
Ins: One of the hallmarks of Bengaluru FC’s success has been their ability to retain a core of their squad since their inception in 2013. The Blues were allowed to retain Juanan, John Johnson, Udanta Singh and talisman Sunil Chhetri for the ISL. In addition to this, the club took every effort t ensure that a majority of their I-League squad assembled at the beginning of 2017 was retained. Harmanjot Khabra, Nishu Kumar, Malsawmzuala, Lalthuammawia Ralte, Alwyn George and Lenny Rodrigues were bought back to the southern city. They were joined by defenders Rahul Bheke, Collin Abranches, Zohmingliana Ralte, Subashish Bose and Joyner Lourenco.
The team added more depth to their Indian contingent in the form of midfielders Boithang and Thongkosiem Haokip, goalkeeper Abhra Mondal, midfielders Robinson Singh and Bidyananda Singh. However, the coup that the Blues reserved until the very last minute was the spectacular capture of Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu from Stabaek FC in Norway.
EXCLUSIVE: Bengaluru FC manager Albert Roca, Nishu Kumar and John Johnson talk to Khel Now
It was the foreign quota that Roca looked to add further quality to. The Spaniard brought in powerful Australian midfielder Erik Paartalu who proved his mettle by taking to the pseudo centre-back role that Cameron Watson was so adept at. Dimas Delgado, Antonio Nobrega, Antonio Dovale and Eduardo Garcia were drafted in from Spain with Dovale and Delgado making their respective bows in the AFC Cup games against 4.25 SC and Istiklol FC. Former Celtic striker Miku was the latest to join the Bengaluru ranks and thus completed their foreign contingent.
Outs: If given a choice, any Bengaluru fan would have wished that they could retain every member of their I-League squad having formed extremely close associations with these set of players. However, sadly the ISL draft saw fan favourites like CK Vineeth, Sandesh Jhingan, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Rino Anto and Amrinder Singh moving to other clubs. Marjan Jugovic and Watson reached the end of their contracts with the club with Watson, in particular, playing an important part of the Blues’ campaigns under Westwood and Roca.
Formation and Tactics
The Blues are likely to adopt Roca’s familiar 3-4-2-1 formation
Albert Roca has added an element of flexibility to the Bengaluru ranks with his preference of the 3-4-2-1 system which will see Juanan and John Johnson reunited with Erik Paartalu playing in a back 3 with Gurpreet being the final piece of the defence. With Lenny Rodrigues and Dimas Delgado sitting in front of the defence to provide solidity in the middle of the park, it provides a license for Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Khabra to bomb forward to provide overlaps with Antonio Dovale and Udanta Singh.
The key player, of course, will be Sunil Chhetri who after an initial lull on the left side of the front 3 was moved to a role that allowed him to roam freely around the pitch and using his dribbling and vision to bring Dovale and Udanta into play.
Depth in midfield is something that the Blues have in plenty in the form of both Haokips, Eduardo Garcia and Malsawmzuala. While Roca prefers a system that adopts a False 9 approach, he has proved before that he is not afraid to take the direct route and Miku is someone who will play an important role in this tactical plan. The Venezuelan striker is one that has played in some of the biggest matches on the European stage and will be aiming to make his mark in India.
When the blues go marching in….
The attacking third is where Bengaluru really pack a punch. The front 3 are an explosive combination of flair, speed and creativity in the form of Antonio Dovale, Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri. With Eugeneson Lyngdoh joining the ranks of Atletico de Kolkata, the creative onus will lie on Chhetri. Roca’s transition to a 3-4-2-1 system will allow for greater width from Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Khabra and thereby ensure that Chhetri and box to box midfielder Dimas Delgado have the freedom to work the channels between the opposition centre-halves. To add to this, the Blues are well versed in keeping the ball and moving play up the pitch in quick bursts, something that will work in their favour during counter-attacks.
While the 3-man defence does allow for a greater attacking threat, the flanks which are one of Bengaluru’s strengths also dovetails as a potential weakness for the opposition to exploit. While Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Khabra are given license to burst forward, they do have to bear in mind their defensive duties.
Opposition teams can look to use their wingers to track the runs of the Nishu and Khabra and allowing their central midfielders to find their strikers in offensive positions. The lack of cover in the wide areas would result in the centre-halves Rahul Bheke and Juanan needing to spread across the pitch and thereby leading to spaces opening up in the defence.
Top 3 Players to Watch
Sunil Chhetri: There is no doubt that Captain Fantastic would be the man that all opposition teams would look to keep an eye on. The 33-year-old will see the ISL as the latest challenge in his stellar career with the Blues. His stints abroad with Sporting Lisbon B and Kansas City Wizards bring to the table plenty of experience and tactical know-how, something that Roca has tapped into while formulating plans for the team.
John Johnson: The 29-year-old Englishman was one of the first signings that Bengaluru FC made during their inception in 2013 and forms the spine of the squad. His organizational abilities and a threat from set pieces were missed during the club’s run in the AFC Cup this year. His partnership with Juanan will be vital as Roca needs a centre back pairing that works well in tandem if the 3 men defensive system is to yield success. It will also be a major boost of confidence to the entire team’s ranks that a key defensive cog will play a major role in mounting a title challenge in Bengaluru’s debut season in the ISL.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu: If Bengaluru have the assurance of finding the net in the attacking third, the opposition will receive no such luxuries as they have to get past the giant frame of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the Bengaluru goal. The 25-year old has taken to his new team like a duck to water and has pulled off many a spectacular save to keep his team in the hunt, particularly in the away leg to Istiklol FC in the AFC Cup. The signing has been one of the steals of the summer and Roca can breathe easy knowing that he has one of India’s top keepers guarding the gates to goal.
Bengaluru FC’s schedule this season © ISL Media
What To Expect
Albert Roca has always maintained that his team would not underestimate any of their opponents regardless of the nature of the competition they are in. The Spaniard has emphasized on hard work in each of his press conferences and this would be the theme of the Bengaluru FC campaign in the ISL. Having tasted victory in the I-League in previous seasons and setting a new standard for competing in continental football, neutrals will expect the Blues to be right up in the mix for the ISL title alongside usual suspects ATK, Kerala Blasters and Chennayin FC. How Roca will look to erase the memories of a sub-par I-League 2017 campaign remains to be seen.